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A Test of an "Imaginary" Experiment of Galileo's

Author(s): James MacLachlan


Reviewed work(s):
Source: Isis, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Sep., 1973), pp. 374-379
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science Society
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Test

of

"4Imaginary

an

Experiment of

Galileos

By James MacLachlan*
I

NUMEROUS

EXPERIENCES ARE INTRODUCED in Galileo's Two New


Sciences (1638) to support arguments about the nature of various phenomena.
While Ernst Mach (in the last century) saw appeals to observation and experiment as
evidence of Galileo's modern spirit, Alexandre Koyre (from 1937 onward) expressed
grave doubts that Galileo had actually performed many of the experiments he
described.' Such a divergence of opinion continues to pervade discussions about the
role of experimentation in the work of Galileo and in the foundations of physics in
the seventeenth century.2
Now, there are appeals to at least three kinds of experiment in Galileo's writings:
real experiments, imaginary experiments, and thought-experiments. Whereas a real
experiment is one that Galileo actually performed, an imaginary experiment is one
that he could have performed but did not, perhaps because he was so convinced that he
already knew how it would turn out. Then there are genuine thought-experiments
(called Gedankenexperimenteby Mach) that cannot be performed, either for logical
reasons or for lack of adequate equipment.3 In the work of Galileo (as in that of
Newton, Einstein, and Heisenberg) there are clear examples of thought-experiments

ReceivedMay 1972:revised/acceptedAug. 1972.


*Institute for the History and Philosophy of
Science and Technology,Universityof Toronto,
Toronto2B, Ontario,Canada.
' Ernst Mach, The Science of Mechanics. A
Critical and Historical Account of its Development,trans. T. J. McCormack(6 eds.; La Salle:
Open Court, 1893, 1902, 1907, 1919, 1942,
1960), Ch. II, Sec. 1. Mach's discussion of
Galileo was somewhat modified in successive
editions. Alexandre Koyre, Etudes galileennes
(Paris:Hermann, 1939), esp. Pts. II, III; and
MetaphysicsandMeasurement.Essays in Scientific Revolution(Cambridge,Mass.: HarvardUniversityPress, 1968),Chs. I-IV.
2 Differing views of Galileo are expressedby
Rene Dugas, Mechanics in the Seventeenth
Century. From the Scholastic Antecedents to
ClassicalThought,trans. F. Jacquot(New York:
Capital Book Co., 1958), pp. 80-87, and E. J.

Dijksterhuis, The Mechanizationof the World


Picture,trans. C. Dikshoorn (Oxford:Clarendon
Press, 1961),pp. 333-345. Deeper studiesmay be
foundin Galileo,Manof Science,ed. E. McMullin
(New York:Basic Books, 1967) in the essays by
Dominique Dubarle, "Galileo's Methodologyof
Natural Science," pp. 295-314, and Thomas B.
Settle, "Galileo'sUse of Experimentas a Tool of
Investigation,"pp. 315-337.
3 The motion to be expected of the moon if
gravity were "switchedoff" is an example of a
logically impossible thought-experiment.Dropping a stone and a featheronto the surfaceof the
moon was a thought-experimentuntil men were
able to land on the moon. I believe that the
literatureof the history of science would be well
served if the term thought-experimentwere
reserved for such unperformable experiments
and clearly distinguished from merely unperformedimaginaryexperiments.

374

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TEST OF AN "IMAGINARY" GALILEAN EXPERIMEN

375

that are widely acknowledged to have played an important role in the development of
certain ideas.4
Yet, contention remains about which of Galileo's other experiments were imaginary
and which were real. In fact, some of Galileo's experiments are less real than others.
On the one hand, his claim that the period of a pendulum is entirely independent of
amplitude can easily be demonstrated not to be true for amplitudes greater than
30 degrees.5 On the other hand, although Koyre considered Galileo's inclined-plane
experiment to be "completely worthless,"6Thomas Settle has shown that it was likely a
real experiment. He tested the experiment according to Galileo's description and found
there to be no difficultyin supposing Galileo to have had sufficient resources to attain
the results he described.7
Did Galileo engage deeply in the direct interrogation of nature, or was he more concerned with shifting science from the shoulders of Aristotle to those of Plato? Continuing disagreement over this issue should mean that the examination of particular
experimental claims by Galileo can contribute to our proper understanding of the
part played by experience in the development of his ideas. To that end, here is the
report of a test of another Galilean experiment identified as imaginary by Koyre.8
II

In a passage in the First Day of the Two New Sciences Salviati described a procedure
(see Fig. 1, in Sec. V) involving water and wine :9
. . . I filled with watera glass ball that had an opening as narrowas a straw stem ...
and turnedit over with its mouth downward.However,neitherthe water,althoughvery
heavy and suited to falling throughair, nor the air, althoughvery light and much inclined to rise in water,will agree,the formerto falling out of the hole [of the ball], the
latterto risingupon entering[therein];but remain,both of them,stubbornand perverse
[in their places].On the contrary,as soon as we shall presentto that hole a vessel containing red wine, which is only imperceptiblyless heavy than water, we shall see it
immediatelyrise slowly in red streaksthroughthe water;and the water,with the same
slowness, descendthroughthe wine, without in the least mixing together,until finally
the ball would be completelyfull of wine, and all the water would fall to the bottom
of the vessel. Now, what should one say, and what argumentsshould be appealedto,
exceptthat thereis betweenwaterand air an incompatibilitythat I do not understand,
but which, perhaps....10

De l'experience imaginaire et de son abus,"


Revued'Histoiredes Sciences, 1960, 13:197-245.
Alexandre Koyre (Paris:Hermann, 1964), pp. Reprintedin Koyre, Metaphysicsand Measurement, pp. 44-88; trans. by R. E. W. Maddison,
307-334.
with the title "Galileo's Treatise De Motu
5 Le Opere di Galileo Galilei, Edizione
Nazionale, ed. A. Favaro (Florence:Tipografia Gravium,The Use and Abuse of Imaginary
Barbera, 1890-1909), Vol. VIII, p. 139; in Experiment."
Two New Sciences, trans. H. Crew and A. de
9 Galileo, Opere, Vol. VIII, pp. 115-116;
Salvio (New York:Macmillan, 1914and numer- TwoNew Sciences(Crewand de Salvio),p. 71.
10 To provide a close comparison with the
ous reprints), pp. 95-96; cf. Marin Mersenne,
Les nouvelles pensees de Galil6e (Paris: Guenon,
comments of Prof. Koyre, this passagehas been
translated from his French translation in
1639),pp. 72-73.
6 Koyre, Metaphysics and Measurement, p. 94.
Rev. Hist. Sci., pp. 240-241. The Galileo
7 T. Settle, "An Experimentin the History of
passage in Maddison's translation (Koyre,
Science," Science, 1961, 133:19-23.
Metaphysicsand Measurement,p. 83) was made
8 A. Koyre, "Le De Motu Gravium de Galilee,
directlyfromthe Italian.
4T. S. Kuhn, "A Function for Thought

Experiments," in L'aventure de l'esprit. Melanges

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376

JAMES MACLACHLAN

Water is so much more dense than air that one may be surprised at the "unwillingness" of water to fall out of the hole when the globe of water is inverted in the air. On
the other hand, water seems to have no difficulty in falling out of the globe into wine,
although the two liquids have very similar densities. Galileo seems to have observed a
real phenomenon, although he lacked a satisfactory explanation of it.
III

Did Galileo really perform this experiment? Had he actually observed the interchange of water and wine that he described? Koyre thought not. In 1960 he published
the foregoing description by Galileo, and then commented:
I confess that I share Salviati'sperplexity.It is, indeed, difficultto put forward an
explanationof the astonishingexperimenthe has just reported;particularly,because,if
we repeatedit exactly as described,we should see the wine rise in the glass globe (filled
with water),and waterfall into the vessel (full of wine); but we shouldnot see the water
andthe winesimplyreplacingeachother;we shouldsee the formationof a mixture.11
What is the conclusion? Do we have to admit that red wines of the seventeenth
centuryhad propertiesno longerpossessedby the winesof today-properties that made
them,like oil, immisciblewith water?Or can we.supposethat Galileo,who undoubtedly
nevermixedwaterwith his wine (for wine to him was "theincarnationof the light of the
sun"), had nevermade the experiment;but, having heard of it, reconstructedit in his
imagination,acceptingthe completeand essentialincompatbilityof waterwith wine as
an indubitablefact?-Personally, I feel thatthe lattersuppositionis the rightone.12
That water and wine should mix together immediately is an assertion that Koyre
might have derived from ordinary experience or from a priori conviction. Since he did
not say whether he had performed the experiment, I decided to test what Galileo had
described.
In the late summer of 1971 I filled an after-shave bottle with water and inverted it
over a goblet of red wine. A piece of drinking straw sealed in the mouth of the bottle
dipped beneath the surface of the wine. For more than an hour I watched in fascination as a perfectly clear layer of water formed at the bottom of the goblet and became
deeper and deeper!
As Galileo had described, a thin red streamer wafted up through the water in the
bottle and occupied a progressively redder and larger region at the top of the bottle. A
light shining through the goblet made possible the detection of a streamer of water
descending through the wine to form the layer at the bottom. After about two hours
the bottle above had become a quite uniform red, and the layer of red left at the top of
the goblet began to descend, ultimately making the liquid in the goblet a uniform
pink.
The bottle that was first filled with water was about 8 centimeters tall, 6 centimeters
wide, and about 2 centimetersthick. The diameter of the straw was about 4 millimeters,
The maximum volume of clear water that appeared at the bottom of the goblet was
just over 60 milliliters, about three-fifths of the total volume of the wine in the goblet.
I have repeated the experiment a number of times with the following variations: (1)
Since the opening of the bottle was only about 6 millimeters wide, it was applied

11 Koyre's footnote at this point will be


reportedand discussedin Sec. IV.

P.KyRev, Metaphysics and Measurement,


p. 84; cf. Rev.Hist. Sci., p. 241.

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TEST OF AN "IMAGINARY" GALILEAN EXPERIMENT

377

directly to the surface of the wine. (2) Several varieties of red wine were used (though,
fortunately, none from the seventeenth century). (3) The bottle and goblet were
replaced with a Florence flask and a beaker, using again a piece of drinking straw for
the outlet from the flask. In all variations essentially the same results were observed,
with the clear layer of water beneath the wine occupying from 40 to 60 per cent of the
original wine volume. In some cases the water in the bottle became mixed up with wine
more quickly than in the first trial, but the pronounced clear layer beneath the wine
always appeared in the lower vessel. With a tube narrower than the drinking straw
the exchange of liquids was minimal, and the trial was terminated.
IV

Professor Koyre proposed another variation:


Resultsmorenearlyin agreementwith Salviati'sassertionwouldbe obtainedby having
two openings,insteadof one, in the glass flask, and fittinga straw,or a narrowtube, to
each in such a mannerthat one (A) is directedto the interiorof the flask,and the other
(B) to the exterior.We should then see a streak of wine streamingfrom the tube A
towardsthe top of the flask,and a streakof waterstreamingto the bottom of the vessel,
with the result that the wine would collect at the top, and the water at the bottom.
Unfortunately,even in this case, there would be mixing. Furthermore,Salviati providesone orificeonly to his flask,not two;nor does he provideany straw.13
Koyr6 seems to have thought that the water and wine needed separate tubes in
order to be exchanged with less mixing (see Fig. 2). As a matter of fact, using two tubes
changes the experiment drastically and quite destroys the contrast Galileo had established. For, if a flask of water with two tubes in its mouth is inverted in air, then water
and air will exchange places much more readily than the water and wine do. Yet
Galileo had appealed to this experiment to demonstrate an incompatibility between
water and air that does not exist between water and wine. Besides, I have shown that a
single opening is sufficient,and even that no straw is needed to conduct the liquids.
Nevertheless, the two-tube experiment was worth trying. It was rather more difficult
to perform because one of the tubes had to be clamped to prevent the water from
flowing out (and air in) while the bottle was being inverted and the tubes submerged
beneath the wine. Once that was done, the transfer of liquids followed essentially the
same course as before-except that the whole operation occurred much more quickly.
Only about 15 minutes were needed to arrive at a resultthat had taken 90 minutes using
only one tube (or none, when the narrow mouth of the bottle was applied to the wine
surface).
v

For the experiment to proceed as Galileo described it, the water must fall through
the wine gently enough that no turbulence is produced to cause the water and wine to
mix. At the same time, the water must traverse its path in a time short enough to forestall mixing by molecular diffusion. The results of my test and an elementary application of hydrodynamic principles suggest that the size of the hole in the globe of water
is a critical factor in determiningthe nature of the downward flow of water.

'3 Koyre,MetaphysicsandMeasurement,
p. 84n; cf. Rev.Hist. Sci., p. 241n.

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JAMES MACLACHLAN

378

water ~

Figure 1.

Galileo's experiment.

wae

Figure 2.

Koyr6's experiment.

At thewater-wineinterface(in thehole)thereis a tendencyto instabilityas a resultof


the greaterdensityof the water.For a smallenoughhole (perhaps2 millimeters)sureffectsmaybe sufficientto inhibitthe flow of waterand wine. For a large
face-tensi'on
hole
(upwardof 10millimeters)the instabilityis so greatthat the flowof water
enough
is turbulent(nonlaminar)and considerablemixingwill occur.114
EvidentlyGalileo's
"1straw
stem"and my 4- to 6-millimeterdiametersare optimalfor the occurrenceof a
smooth,laminarflowof the water.
For a hole of the optimumsize, then, the instabilityat the water-wineinterface
resultsin the water"dropping"throughthe hole, displacingthe wine,and settingup a
convectiveflow in the wine. The wine is extrudedinto the watercontainerabove,in a
thin jet. The "wafting"of the wine upwardthroughthe bottle suggestsa degreeof
instabilityresultingfroma higherlinearspeedthanthat of the waterstreamingdownward,indicatingthat the wateroccupiesa largerfractionof the hole thanthe wine.A
14 For a hole that large, of course, water will
flow out quite readily when the bottle is held

mouth downwardin air, so that the conditionsof


the Galileanexperimentare againnot realized.

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TEST OF AN "IMAGINARY" GALILEAN EXPERIMENT

379

more detailed account of this phenomenon would require a rather complex analysis in
hydrodynamics, which has not yet been undertaken.15
When a narrow-mouthedvessel full of water is inverted in air the water does not fall
out. Galileo attributed this phenomenon to an "incompatibility" between water and
air. Now, when the same vessel is inverted with its mouth beneath the surface of wine,
the two liquids exchange places, not exhibiting that kind of incompatibility. However,
since the manner of exchange of the two liquids made no contribution to Galileo's
argument, I believe that he would have been satisfied if the water and wine had merely
interpenetrated gradually. But they did not; and Galileo's detailed description of the
striking behavior of the wine and water convinces me that he did indeed see what I
have seen. However imaginary this experiment may have been for Koyre, it was certainly a real experimentfor Galileo.
15 1 am grateful to Prof. C. 0. Hines of the
University of Toronto and Dr. W. R. Peltier of
the Universityof Coloradofor discussionsof the
hydrodynamic principles involved in this ex-

periment.This researchhas also benefitedfrom


the kind encouragementof Prof. StillmanDrake
of the Universityof Toronto.

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